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The Mysterious Cult of the Vallée des Merveilles

Vallée des Merveilles

Animals, weapons, geometric and disturbing figures have been carved by the thousands on the walls of a natural sanctuary which is far from having revealed all the secrets of the cult that was paid there.

It was in 1650 that the historian Niçois Gioffredo mentioned for the first time the existence of a set of enigmatic signs carved on rocks in the Vallée des Merveilles. But it was not until the 1890s that a first in-depth study was undertaken by the English botanist Clarence Bicknell, who unearthed more than 11,000 engravings and established the site as one of the most important ever discovered. From 1967, and until 1998, the prehistorian Henry de Lumley directed the systematic inventory, to reach the incredible number of 100,000 engravings and figures, dated to the end of the Bronze Age (late Neolithic, between 1800 and 1500 BC).

Located 80 km north of Nice in the Mercantour National Park, extending over 30 square kilometers around Mont Bégo and culminating at an altitude of 2,300 m, the Vallée des Merveilles has always impressed people. This is evidenced by the toponymy of the places: Mont Bégo ("the one who dominates"), the Valley of Valmasque (masca means "witch"), the cime du Diable... In fact, it constitutes a grandiose and sometimes disturbing landscape, made of erratic boulders, moraines, lakes and larch forests. Two main valleys contain rock carvings: the Vallée des Merveilles and the Fontanalba valley. And, although the work of historians has taken an important step forward in the interpretation of the site, many mysteries remain concerning its origin.

A complex inventory

Made by picketing on walls of schist, sandstone and granite polished by glaciers, the engravings appear in fairly light gray green on the pink patina of the rock, and are divided into four distinct groups. The horned figures, of varying sizes, constitute the vast majority of the engraved figures (80% of the whole). The bull or god Bego, symbol of fertility in the Mediterranean basin, master of the storm, and the ox, sometimes harnessed and associated with working the land, dominate. Weapons (daggers, swords, halberds) and tools (scythes, sickles) are also found in large numbers. Anthropomorphic figures are divided into two groups: small figures, who appear either isolated or in a team, and large figures, rarer, more complex and often unique. Finally, geometric figures are undoubtedly the most enigmatic. Concentric circles, dots, rectangles… do they indicate fields, houses? Is this an attempt to draw up a cadastre?

The manifestation of a sacred universe?

In the absence of writing, the farmers and hunters who populated the area during the Bronze Age may have etched their myths and beliefs using ideograms. This is the first interpretation that seems to be necessary, the message inscribed in the stone would be that of an initiation rite, and would designate the Vallée des Merveilles as an open-air sanctuary, where pilgrimages were made to implore the two main divinities that were the god of the Storm, the bull, and the earth-goddess, so that they came to fertilize the cultures. The route taken by priests and initiates led them to the highest peaks, reserved for the largest rocks and the largest figures, those that historians have nicknamed "chief of the tribe", "Christ", "sorcerer", " dancer ”; while the laymen stayed in the valley.

However, another interpretation, involving the constellations as they appeared in the Bronze Age, is emerging. The cross-shaped arms of the "chief of the tribe" would point to the north-south axis. The rock of the Altar, the rock of the Chief of the tribe and the rock of the Rouelle are arranged along the same north-south axis. The Chief of the tribe would thus aim for the sun at the summer solstice, the autumn equinox and the exact day between these two dates. On the other hand, concentric circles, located above the point corresponding to the summer solstice, could represent the constellation Capricorn which, at the time, peaked at night in this time of the year. The Vallée des Merveilles would then become a vast natural astrological observatory.

The two interpretations are not in contradiction. Perhaps in this place, imbued with magic and mystery, men have given life to a complex cosmogony where the rites of worship of the deities mingled with the observation of the stars.